TAMPA, Fla. — During every election cycle, candidates spend millions of dollars on yard signs, television commercials and flyers that arrive in your mailbox. But the I-Team uncovered that political incumbents have a built-in advantage when getting their names out, and taxpayers are footing the bill.
"Name recognition is critical," said University of South Florida Political Science Professor Dr. Susan MacManus. "That's why the incumbency re-election rate is so high for virtually every office in this country."
MacManus says elected officials can promote their political brand by putting their names on buildings and sending out official notices printed on stationery bearing their names. They also put their pictures on government websites and social media pages, she said.
Incumbency has its perks
"When I came in, I suggested on my first day in office here about social media, Twitter and Facebook and things like that," said Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez.
He says he was one of the early adopters of social media and has benefited from name recognition.
Henriquez says the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's website gets more than two million hits in the weeks after trim notices go out. He believes it's important that his name, picture and email are visible so people with problems can contact him.
"Incumbency has its perks, but certainly if you fail to impress the public with your actions, that can backfire as well," he said.
Critics bashed President Trump earlier this year after sending signed letters to stimulus payment recipients.
When Florida Secretary of Agriculture Nikki Fried purchased 120,000 stickers with her picture on them to place on Florida gas pumps last year, legislators changed the law on stickers to ban pictures.
The change forced Fried to remove and replace them.
A thousand decals = millions of eyeballs
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister put decals with his name on at least 1,004 vehicles since taking office in 2017. Taxpayers forked over $15,114 to pay for the decals and installations.
Neither the previous sheriff, David Gee, nor any other current Tampa Bay area sheriff has placed their names on patrol cars.
"Any type of stickers are going to be out there, giving the impressions, getting the talk going," Jeff Nicholson said.
Nicholson is the founder of Websticker.com and drives an old VW bug, that he calls a "sticker mobile," covered in hundreds of decals.
Nicholson, the author of "Stick This," a book about using stickers in marketing, says a vehicle that travels 15,000 miles in a year will pass in front of nine million other vehicles during that time, according to a recent study.
"Calculate that out, as far as how many impressions that sticker on the back of that squad car, how many times that's being read," Nicholson said.
In a county with 1.5 million residents and nearly a thousand patrol cars: "That's millions. Millions of impressions. So it is substantial, even if it's a smaller decal and even if it's not a metro area. It's getting seen," Nicholson said.
Residents are able to hold elected officials accountable
Chronister declined our request for an interview, saying he had already discussed this issue with other news outlets in the past.
His spokesperson responded, however.
“We feel that it is critical for the citizens of Hillsborough County to know, more so than any other elected official, who their sheriff is and who is working for them daily to keep their communities safe,” spokeswoman Crystal Clark wrote. “This is not a new practice for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. For many of our buildings and some equipment, Sheriff Chad Chronister's name simply replaced Sheriff David Gee's name when he took over the office."
The I-Team learned Chronister also placed his name on a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office boat, dozens of motorcycles and even a forklift. Chronister’s picture holding a stop sign also appears on a decal posted on a crossing guard vehicle.
Nicholson said during his 25 years of selling bumper stickers to politicians, he’s never known of a politician to put decals with their names on so many county-owned vehicles.
Professor MacManus says as long as it’s not considered part of an election campaign, it’s perfectly legal.
“If people feel strongly that it’s inappropriate, they can vote against that person and they can also pressure their state legislator to change the Florida statutes,” she said.
Read the email response of Crystal Clark, spokesperson for Sheriff Chad Chronister:
We feel that it is critical for the citizens of Hillsborough County to know, more so than any other elected official, who their sheriff is and who is working for them daily to keep their communities safe. Placing his name on our equipment is much like the County Tax Collector or County Supervisor of Elections labeling every tax bill, tax envelope and other printed materials distributed to the more than one million residents of Hillsborough County on a very frequent basis. Residents are only able to hold their elected officials accountable if they know who they are and how to contact them. This is not a new practice for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. For many of our buildings and some equipment, Sheriff Chad Chronister's name simply replaced Sheriff David Gee's name when he took over the office.
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